In the UK, air quality monitoring stations could also track biodiversity

Air quality monitoring stations installed for decades could also record the surrounding biodiversity. You had to think about it! This is the subject of a study by British biologist Joanne Littlefair (Queen Mary’s University of London) conducted with physicists from the National Physical Laboratory (LNP) of the United Kingdom and published on June 5 in the journal Current Biology.

Traces of hedgehogs, owls and newts, but also linden and pine… Scientists have identified more than 180 species of mammals, plants, fungi and insects using environmental DNA (eDNA) captured by filters from the UK air quality monitoring network, administered by the LNP. Joanne Littlefair confides that this work began as “a little scientific experiment”. Because if the identification of species from eDNA found in water or soil is now common, its analysis in the air has only just begun.

“We did not expect to have such good results”

James Allerton, physicist specializing in metrology (science of measurements) at the LNP and co-author of the study, came across an article in January 2022 taking up previous work in which Joanne Littlefair had participated. The researchers had found the species in a zoo by analyzing eDNA in the air. “We’ve been filtering the air for years and it never occurred to us to look for possible traces of environmental DNA,” says James Allerton smiling.

The physicists then decided to send the biologists filters from two of their stations. Located in the south-west suburbs of London and at the Auchencorth Moss research site in Scotland, they track PM10 fine particles, air pollutants smaller than 10 micrometres.

“We didn’t expect to have such good results,” says Joanne Littlefair. And for good reason, half of their samples had been stored for eight months, at room temperature, in the regulatory archives of the LNP, while the duration of persistence of eDNA is not precisely known.

However, we are still far from a real biomonitoring tool, capable of monitoring endangered species – in particular mammals –, according to Pierre Taberlet, researcher emeritus at the Laboratory of Alpine Ecology in Grenoble. “The levels detected in the air are sometimes so low that it is difficult to distinguish sporadic contamination from a real presence. If we detect a dormouse once in a filter, what do we do with this kind of data? », asks the researcher, who was not involved in the study.

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